IN RECENT INTERVIEWS WITH THIS WRITER in MOJO magazine, legendary engineer-producer Glyn Johns and celebrated rock photographer Ethan Russell remembered the time they spent embedded with the Beatles over the subsequently notorious month of January 1969.
The group (or, perhaps, chiefly Paul McCartney) had undertaken to prepare a whole new album in a fortnight, the process of rehearsal and recording to be filmed for a TV show that would conclude with a concert – their first since August 1966 – in which the newly minted songs would be showcased. Famously, it did not quite turn out that way, as the Beatles found the rehearsal venue, a sound stage at Twickenham film studios, uninspiring (“It reminds me of Lime St. Station,” said George Harrison), enthusiasm for the concert idea was not universal, and tensions between McCartney and Harrison would result in the latter abandoning the sessions (temporarily, it transpired) at halfway, declaring he had left the band.
Out of this sub-optimal environment emerged (albeit over a year later, and shortly after news of the Beatles’ eventual split became official) a film and album, both entitled Let It Be. Now there’s a second coming, as Peter Jackson’s mammoth assemblage of the footage and audio captured at the time, all zingily restored, debuts as a three-part documentary today, tomorrow and Saturday on the Disney+ television channel.
Johns, who engineered all the music the Beatles made for the project, and Russell, who photographed the bulk of the sessions, welcomed Jackson’s Get Back trilogy yet both, it’s fair to say, were bemused by reports of its epic length. Yes, The Beatles were pretty great and all, but would viewers really tolerate over six hours of what’s long been characterised as the group’s fatal wounding, if not its actual death rattle?
Having now sat through the whole of it, MOJO can say that yes, many probably would. And more than once. For while not without its longueurs (watching the Beatles organise their vocal harmonies, you’re reminded more than once of Spinal Tap at Elvis’s graveside), the intimacy of the experience is addictive. You’re in the Beatles’ midst, smoking their Kents and drinking their Skol, gaping at the inspired takes, cringing as they bog themselves down in inferior material, sensing the minutest shifts in the political temperature between four lads who shook the world but find that adulthood leaves less and less space for their brothers and their individual emotional and creative needs.
It’s not always comfortable viewing. The concern that Jackson might soft-pedal Harrison’s flit, or the run-up to it, proves unfounded. The niggles over riffs and harmonies are all there, and there’s a beautifully edited segment, switching between the faces of Harrison, Lennon and McCartney as the latter two bond through a bash at of Two Of Us, where you really feel the pain of the youngest Beatle, locked out of the love-in. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be as exasperated as McCartney or the director of the 1969 footage, Michael Lindsay-Hogg (perma-chomping on an absurd stogie), as they try to persuade the others to end the project with a live show commensurate with the Beatles’ stature. As the camera lingers, in the wake of Harrison’s departure, on a visibly upset McCartney, you realise why he won’t let it lie. His big finale is not just for a TV show or a film but for The Beatles in toto. Please let it not end like this.
While the atmosphere between the Beatles is almost invariably respectful and good-humoured – as McCartney notes, there are no “earth-splitting rows” – the End Times theme is inescapable. We hear that the group has already discussed a “divorce” (“Who gets the kids?” John asks; Paul drolly suggests Lennon-McCartney’s song publisher, Dick James). All appear to agree that they’ve lacked direction since manager Brian Epstein’s death in August 1967, and there’s much gallows humour regarding their Apple organisation’s bottomless money-pit, exemplified by “Magic Alex” Mardas’s comically inexhaustible supply of technological white elephants (on camera, Lennon takes delivery of a ridiculous bass with a revolving, double-sided neck), all prototyped on the Beatles’ dollar. Meanwhile, lurking like an offstage villain is Allen Klein – soon to take over the Beatles management to McCartney’s horror – who is conducting meetings with Lennon even as the Get Back/Let It Be work continues.
The claustrophobia of Beatle life is another keening note. The band read aloud from newspaper articles about their imminent break-up or unwelcome transformation into “weirdies” – the funny voices do not fully disguise their dismay. And their otherness is underlined as Lennon arrives to work at Savile Row in a vast white Rolls-Royce with a TV aerial on the roof (it gets a parking ticket). Conversely, there’s much focus on their normality. The Beatles munch toast and discuss last night’s telly – Lennon is thoroughly taken by what he saw of Fleetwood Mac. There are no airs or graces, or only in jest as Lennon counters a note of constructive criticism from Glyn Johns with a cheery, “Don’t come it, fuckface!” Their partners mingle happily, and there’s a lovely moment where Paul’s soon-to-be wife Linda turns up with daughter Heather and everyone from Ringo to roadie Mal Evans is delighted to entertain her. While it should be remembered that Get Back is an official Apple/Beatles product and would have gone through an exhaustive approval process involving all the Beatles or their estates, it’s important to note that Yoko’s permanent presence at the sessions, so often assumed to be a bone of contention, is barely remarked upon – except when McCartney notes that it would be absurd for future commentators to suggest that the Beatles broke up “because Yoko sat on an amp”. There are countless gags and cracks and reams of Beatlese. Ringo farts, and immediately owns up.
All this stuff – this accumulation of action, inaction and interaction, steeped in character and context – builds into a warm portrait of four men at a crossroads; things will never be the same for them after this. It’s fascinating, but if viewers return to Get Back like Beatles fans will always return to, say, Revolver, it will be for the tangible and evident joy the band share in each others’ music making. There’s a take of I’ve Got A Feeling at Apple Studios, the first with Billy Preston on Fender Rhodes, that’s so instantly electrifying it seems to light up the Beatles’ faces, and a Get Back – the first where Ringo introduces that familiar cantering beat – that makes you thrill at the terrifying proximity of what is genius in music and what is merely good. Harrison, restored and reconciled for now, is the one who suggests Get Back should be released instantly, as a single.
Then there’s the entirety of the Savile Row rooftop concert – the compromise solution that delivers something of the “payoff” that McCartney’s been seeking – during which the Beatles are so fiercely ‘on’ you realise what they’ve been missing all along: an audience, some jeopardy, and a proper deadline. After multiple Get Backs, I’ve Got A Feelings and Don’t Bring Me Downs – a Dig A Pony and even One After 909 – you’re praying they manage another song before the police shut them down. It’s that exciting.
Much earlier in the film, after observing McCartney perform some magic on the keys, Ringo tells the camera, “I’d watch an hour of him just playing piano.” Some of us might even stretch to six.
The Beatles: Get Back premieres on Disney+ November 25, 26 and 27
Picture: © 2021 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.